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July 25, 2023

The Art of Embodied Immersion | Alida Sun

The elusive creator discusses the power of generative art to encode ethics in digital aesthetics
Credit: Alida Sun, via-vis?+ (detail), 2022. Courtesy of the artist
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The Art of Embodied Immersion | Alida Sun
This conversation is also available as a podcast.

One of the figureheads of the FEMGEN movement, Alida Sun has distinguished herself in recent years for the rare hybridity of her practice. Combining code-based art with projection mapping and live performance, her beguiling abstractions are purposely designed to reconnect the human spectator with a kind of embodied subjectivity that is increasingly constrained by the digital condition. 

In this wide-ranging discussion with Alex Estorick, the artist addresses the politics of generative systems, which invariably reside in the communities that wield the code. She proposes that some forms of generative art constitute a digital form of folk art, one that contests the ongoing exclusivity of the legacy art world.

Installation view and performance of Alida Sun, Stellaraum (2022) at Kraftwerk Berlin with dancers Giorgia Bovo and Jonathan Royse Windham. Photography by Yuto Yamada. Courtesy of the artist

Alex Estorick: As an artist whose work combines generative art with immersive experiences, do you feel different from your peers in Web3?

Alida Sun: When you have a practice that is grounded in technology, it’s a great entry point for supporting other artists who don’t get the recognition and compensation that they deserve. I actually got into generative art through sound and audiovisual practices. I’m not a musician myself, more a noise artist, but sound has been integral since the beginning. I’ve also collaborated with sound artists, including the DJ and composer, Miro, who, in a matter of days, crafted the most incredible musical accompaniment and soundscape for my installation performance at Kraftwerk Berlin. I have massive respect for musicians. This space would be so much better if we could onboard the many people who have experienced the horrors of the music industry

When I started out with interactive installations, sound was often an element that allowed people to interact with the work, to generate it, and help drive its life. As I’ve delved more into the work of sound artists, including Fluxus, alongside critiques of the attention economy, it’s become clear to me that sound and noise transform one’s everyday experience. The mundane is oftentimes very inspiring to me, but my interactive audiovisual noise experiments don’t really follow convention. I respect a lot of the more skeuomorphic works out there, but my focus and inspiration has always gone more toward sensory real-time experience. 

Working in the NFT space, it’s impossible not to absorb what we’re all going through on a collective level. The possibilities for healing and for resisting burnout as well as negative systems are really exciting. 

I think that synesthesia is a lot more common than people realize. Based on the responses I’ve received through my work with immersive platforms that are geared toward diverse audiences, simply by viewing an audiovisual sketch people feel transformed and their headaches clear up. We’re seeing an increasing amount of ableism against neurodivergence, and while some social media platforms are dumpster fires, they are also a means for people to understand how their own brains work and to reconsider what constitutes “normal” brain behavior beyond data extracted from a very specific group of white men.

Alida Sun, Chromacounterpane: Augen, 2021. Courtesy of the artist

AE: Do you have any particular works in mind when you speak about this complex of ideas?

AS: I title every work according to a day and a number, exhibiting them as a continuation of my project with Kraftwerk, Stellaraum (2022). Over time, they have become increasingly interactive, with the current work referred to as KLANGRAUM (2023). 

I have trouble naming works because I find it hard to distinguish where one work ends and another begins. It’s really a process-based approach geared toward soft, somatic play that generates a geometric instrument.

I’m always referencing past work in a very gentle way because I don’t make an entirely new algorithm every single day; It’s always a soft iteration. People seem to respond to my dual-tone installation system. 

Alida Sun, KLANGRAUM (static preview), 2023. Courtesy of the artist

AE: You’ve already mentioned Fluxus but hearing you speak about integrating sound into the praxis of everyday life reminds me of The Art of Noises (1913) by one of the original Italian Futurists, Luigi Russolo. Your discussion of the audience’s experience also evokes phenomenology. Yet there is a strain of criticism that regards immersive experiences as desensitizing the viewer. Are there ways that audiovisual immersion can reconnect, perhaps recohere, the human instead of disembodying and disconnecting her? 

AS: Work that focuses on the body that involves a lot of real-time tracking is sinister. A lot of my dance collaborations question this through speculative performances where all the data is stored locally. I’m very intentional about that. The answer is simple, because the life of an artist who works in code is pretty unhealthy — it’s totally online, hunched over a computer, staring at a screen all day. And so it’s about creating and integrating a mode of daily life. A lot of the somatic systems of knowledge are derived from indigenous knowledge systems. 

The AI work that I’m doing now with sound and visuals is transparent and open source. I see it as a generative archive. One of the reasons I initiated my daily generative art practice is because I’m terrible at documentation. It was a way of saying: I’m going to engage with this surveillance capitalist dumpster fire in a way that subverts it. But every platform right now is a sinking trash barge.

Looking at the NFT space, there are so many examples where ethics and transparency are directly related to the long-term success and stability of a project. 

For example, proprietary software is really hard to archive, and software is a very delicate medium. Talking to artists like Lia Something, who’ve been working with it for decades, it’s clear that many early computing languages aren’t around anymore because their communities are no longer there to keep them alive. 

Alida Sun, Synesthesia (silent preview), 2023. Courtesy of the artist

I’ve always wanted to create something that’s specific to the medium instead of regurgitating conventions that are rooted in cultural erasure. I love paintings, but there’s a lot of hierarchy there. I’m a visual artist but I don’t believe in the supremacy of painting or images in general. It’s amazing to do an exhibition with poets and the written word at a time when, in the US especially, all of that is being banned. My experience of poetry was less to do with the written word and more to do with performance, and that also goes into these histories where you have the supremacy of the written word. 

AE: There are lots of artists, including Stephanie Dinkins, Gretchen Andrew, and Mimi Onuoha who, over the past few years, have developed strategies to critique and also manipulate hegemonic algorithms. The history of Web2 has been about capturing user data and converting us all into data bodies that are quite different from what we were prior to being captured. I’d like to know how you approach the age of algorithmic identity?

AS: First and foremost, it’s an issue of safety and then it’s a form of resistance against microaggressions. When I was starting out in generative art, it was a very communal experience, not a high-resource group. In Eastern Europe, where you only have bare bones equipment, you use whatever you can find. That’s another reason why I’m into open source because that’s often what we had access to. 

If you get on a bus and go to a small festival in West Asia, projection mapping and immersive digital art travels light. It also adapts to the space. 
Alida Sun in collaboration with Franny Choi, bewildered with stars, 2023. Courtesy of the artist

I collaborated with Franny Choi for the exhibition, POÈME SUBJKT, and her poem deals a lot with migration. The installation I made drew on this migratory behavior as well as places that are often excluded or overlooked. As someone who has immigrated repeatedly in my life, I can see that projection mapping and digital art carry associations of non-place that dovetail with neoliberal imperatives, like a generic coffee shop that isn’t grounded anywhere. But that displacement is also a lived reality for people who don’t have a ton of resources and who are part of this community that transforms space with artwork using whatever materials you can fit in a backpack. 

AE: I’m fascinated by this notion of Web3 as a border economy and in-between space, which ties the blockchain’s digital geography back to new materialist theory. You make it seem that projection mapping is tailored to traveling light — to mapping oneself onto a particular terrain, or binding the digital to the physical in an ad hoc and itinerant way. Could you elaborate on that idea? 

AS: All you really need is a laptop, a projector, and some kind of sensor. I think the old Kinect depth-sensing cameras are much better than the new expensive sensors — that is still my go-to set-up. If you do installations involving lighting, audio, and sound, it’s more about adapting the space, controlling the lighting conditions, and doing what you can to stage how people interact with it. 

Alida Sun, DAY 1544: Museum of Crypto Art Mosaic Tile, 2023. Courtesy of the artist
Whenever I do shows, my first question is: “what are the environmental conditions?” When I was starting out, I had to know about cloud cover and light refraction — it was a crash course in nature even as my practice became more grounded in technology.

Projection mapping went commercial and then it died, which makes it a cautionary tale for me because I still love and use the medium. But Joanie Lemercier is doing some of the most intriguing work with it, all grounded in environmental awareness. I don’t think you can separate the two. 

Sharing my work across different platforms, I’m really struck by how, with Gen Z, there’s a divide with technology, and how millennials and even Gen X know more about technology than kids who are usually very adaptable to it. The rise of dumb phones and dumb cameras is indicative of an Internet that is closer to what I experienced as a kid than these massive neoliberal operations like Meta. Today, the Web is more DIY and decentralized.  

Alida Sun, via-vis?+, 2022. Courtesy of the artist

AE: One of my favorite quotes of yours is: “I work in assemblage, which is an art world approved way of saying that I improvise with whatever is free, and frequently deemed useless.” I also understand that you studied industrial design, which means that yours is not a neat contemporary art practice. There is a particular type of language that you know how to use about your work that frames it according to the terms of contemporary art, but it seems to me that you are resistant to any language imposed from outside, certainly from legacy systems that simplify or obscure and exclude certain groups in the process. 

RCS is principally designed to celebrate those artists who weren’t able to participate in the previous iteration of the art world. Could you say something about your resistance to legacy structures and acceptance of digital craft and a wider range of art practices? How do you feel about the notion of an expanding art world that is more pluralistic and inclusive yet doesn’t fetishize technology?

AS: Code is so prevalent — it’s the most abundant material at hand. I regard a lot of code-based generative art as a form of digital folk art. 

People have trouble reconciling digital media with folk art, but a lot of us are not industry, much less art world insiders. When I look at what my peers are doing, it’s pretty images that you want to hang in your home, and that’s valid too — it’s digital folk art for the people.  

Installation view and performance of Alida Sun, Stellaraum (2022) at Kraftwerk Berlin with dancer Gyorgy Jellinek. Courtesy of the artist

You learn so much about human behavior when you do interactive installations. When you go to a lot of these high art, contemporary art spaces, they are so rigid, unwelcoming, and exclusive by design. I can’t remember the last time I went to a proper gallery and people were actually laughing or playing when it wasn’t specifically geared towards kids. I think joy is a really essential element of resistance, and you need it as fuel. 

AE: I suppose the counterargument is that infantilizing visual or immersive experiences are one of capitalism’s favorite devices. It makes me wonder whether you consciously imbue the uncanny into your work as a means of rupturing the seamless fabric of digital experience that Gen Z is both vulnerable to and skeptical of. As I understand it, while dumb phones are technostalgic, they also serve to clarify the nature of the technology, which has become so pervasive.

AS: For sure. We all cringe at immersive Monet exhibitions that are just really corny. Unfortunately, we live in a system where it's impossible not to be complicit. But my practice is also growing out of my own life. It is really telling that a lot of people dismiss digital art because there’s no physicality to it. That’s funny to me because I don’t even keep up with the latest toys. In fact, I get a lot of messages from emerging artists who are trying to get into the medium, and they’re telling me, “I can’t replicate what you’re doing” because the new computers don’t have the same customizable, DIY components. 

You can’t even recreate my work with the planned obsolescence shit that’s on the market today. 
Alida Sun, glitch crystal monster #707, 2021. Courtesy of the artist

AE: Earlier, you described code as the most abundant medium at hand. But code is also a political battleground. Some of it is open source and some of it is not, while some of it is used to train large language models. You resist algorithmic capture by maintaining a degree of pseudonymity. As a generative artist, there’s also a sense in which you might be able to shape new digital systems toward more progressive operations.

AS: Absolutely, and there are some great artists who are addressing it, which becomes clear when you zoom out and see the whole networked practice. Nowhere is that more clear than with Processing, which has such a strong, transparent, open-source community. I actually gravitate more towards C++, because it’s better for performance-based installation, but p5.js goes above and beyond on the ethical front, which is really reflected in the work that gets produced in that community. 

I’ve used tools, programs, and frameworks that aren’t open source, and they have their place. But, with so many people talking about the place of code-based art in the history books, it’s so difficult to do that because you need a community that is strong on every level to archive work and to make it accessible. 

From a purely self-interested point of view, if you want your work to survive and be known, then it’s essential to engage with communities that have great codes of conduct. I don’t know why more people don’t see that. I’m not open source for the sake of being open source. The whole point is accessibility. 
Installation view and performance of Alida Sun, Please Clear Your Cache of Past Incarnations (2021) at SOMA Berlin with dancer Giorgia Bovo. Courtesy of the artist

AE: I wonder whether the code itself, rather than the artist, represents a geography of resistance, or whether it takes the combination of code and the artist to produce a generative system with the emergent potential for progressive politics or disruptive ideas?

AS: It can be tough being in this space as well as in coding communities in general. I’ve always wanted to go to Chaos Computer Club (CCC), which is the pre-eminent hacker gathering here in Germany, but I’m not on board with how indifferent they are to violence [...]. 

It’s never really about which program artists are using exactly. It’s the network and the community that are intriguing.

AE: Of course, however ethically enshrined a community might be, code becomes financialized in Web3. How do you reconcile that?

AS: I’m not an expert when it comes to DeFi and the more financial aspects of the space, but I think it has to do with timelines. Rug pulls and cash grabs are all based on very short-term thinking. It’s like: do you want to shear the sheep every year or just kill it outright? 

I see all these people likening [the current situation] to the Renaissance. But in order to have that level of success and grandeur then ethics becomes a mercenary necessity because you need that integrity in order to prevent the entire system from collapsing. That’s as apparent in code as it is in Web3, but maybe I’m out of touch because it seems that everyone is consumed with short-term thinking.

Alida Sun, Insomnia Drawing Simulation, 2023. Courtesy of the artist

AE: What strikes me as so important about Web3 is its viability as an alternative art world that celebrates digital practices. You never heard people saying: “I’m an artist, I work in Web2.” On the other hand, you’ve used Tumblr for many years. How important have Web2 platforms been in building the careers of artists in Web3? 

AS: It’s funny because some of the most successful Web3 artists were Tumblr artists, including Sarah Zucker, Jesse Drexler, and XCOPY. I remember Tumblr in its heyday, and it was intentionally geared towards artists. Ryan Trecartin, for example, was really thinking about the nature of digital art, digital media, and authorship.

A lot of us artists in Web3 don’t have massive studios, so it’s funny to be compared as an installation artist to people with a team the size of a startup. But generative art and blockchain just makes sense, so hopefully the best aspects of the generative art community can continue to lead — people like Snowfro, Casey Reas, and Lauren Lee McCarthy. Hopefully that team wins out against Team Cash Grab. At the end of the day, it comes down to the people who actually make and engage with technology. That is why community-based practice is really crucial to ensuring the longevity and success of the space. 

We are embodied beings and it can be a very harmful mode that people get stuck in — this short-termist, scarcity mindset. We need a more ethical, artistic, and less reductive approach in order to get rid of all the toxic stuff that is destroying people’s health and turning people off from onboarding. 

It’s heartening to me that burnout is no longer seen as a badge of honor by the younger folks. Social paradigms are also in the mix too, which is why code continues to be so exciting to me, because it makes visible all these connections that are there yet hardly acknowledged. People’s personal health, people’s collective health, ethics, and financial success — it’s all tied together. My generative art practice helps me to see that and to figure out my own brain.

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Alida Sun is a multidisciplinary artist whose practice integrates presence, resistance, and the nature of adaptation in the age of algorithms. Every day for over 1,500 days and counting she has coded and built new generative artwork encompassing installation, sound, architecture, choreography, drawing, and light. Sun is the creator of Art Blocks Curated project, glitch crystal monsters (2021). Her work has been exhibited at the Decentral Art Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, Ars Electronica, Unit London, Seattle NFT Museum, and audiovisual festivals around the world.

Alex Estorick is Editor-in-Chief at Right Click Save.